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UCPS leads state in language immersion programs

Annya Restrepo is all smiles with her student Gavin Aldredge, who will participate in his third year of the language immersion program at Shiloh Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Scott Spencer

Union County Public Schools is walking the talk as the system puts its globalization goals into action.

The district’s Visiting Immersion Faculty (VIF) Splash Language Immersion program has established UCPS as a leader in North Carolina when it comes to language immersion programs.

Nine UCPS schools – Shiloh, Sun Valley, Antioch, Western Union, Poplin, Weddington, Unionville, Marvin and Kensington elementary schools – will offer the Splash programs, which incorporate instruction in a foreign language from kindergarten to fifth grade, next year. Seven of the programs are in Spanish and two are in Mandarin Chinese.

The idea began in Union County after the district tried to implement weekly 20-minute language programs in elementary schools. But the end result wasn’t what educators were hoping for, David Clarke, deputy superintendent of human resources at UCPS, said.

“It did not reach the goal we wanted,” Clarke said. “We started to look for a more comprehensive program … ways to create a more permanent solution.”

UCPS began the county’s immersion program in 2012 with a Spanish cohort in both Shiloh and Sun Valley, which are adjacent to each other in Indian Trail. That allowed the two campuses to work together on the new program, Shiloh Elementary School Principal Scott Spencer said.

The extent of language immersion offerings in UCPS is unlike any other district of its size, according to the UCPS website, and the district is helping North Carolina meet State Board of Education commitments to develop globally competent students and provide more North Carolina students with the benefits of language immersion. UCPS is one of the only school districts to carry out the immersion program in a strategic, widespread manner, Vicky Kim, director of program and services at VIF International Education, said.

According to the UCPS’s Strategic Plan approved by the Board of Education on June 3, the county plans to integrate globalization into instruction throughout the county. The county hopes immersion students will be fluent in the language by the time they complete middle school so they have the opportunity to learn another language in high school and can be competitive in the workforce, Clarke said.

“Our efforts in the school system are to educate students to the ever-changing society,” Tom Bulla, the director of elementary education for Union County Public Schools, added. “We are now a global society and this gives our kids an unbelievable advantage. … When you go in and see these kids speaking in another language and they’re responding to their teachers immediately, it just verifies that the goal is not just surface-level knowledge of another language.”

Kensington Elementary School Principal Rachel Clark’s students have been immersed in Mandarin for a full year. She traveled to China to select two Chinese teachers to teach the school’s first kindergarten class, and as those students move to the first grade, Kensington will have two more teachers to teach the older children.

“The intent is the students will stay in the Mandarin classroom all the way until the fifth grade,” Clark said.

Most of the programs in UCPS are full immersion, which means they include up to 90 percent of instruction in their immersion language. The students learn the standard course of study through the immersion language.

“When you’re learning a language, you typically learn things you know, like colors and days of the week. When you learn in immersion, you learn about things you don’t know, but in another language,” Kim said, adding that national and local data have shown children in the immersion programs consistently outperform their peers.

UCPS is still waiting for data on how the immersion students perform on standardized state tests since its immersion students are still in second grade, though results so far seem to be positive. Clark said kindergarten students in Kensington Elementary’s immersion program are reading just as well as students in the non-immersion classes if not better, while Shiloh Elementary students are taking their lessons outside the classroom.

“Some of the parents say (the students) can even speak Spanish at home now,” Spencer, the Shiloh Elementary principal, said.

VIF staff often visited Shiloh Elementary to check the students’ English and Spanish reading skills to provide feedback to educators, and Spencer cites Clarke and Bulla as major cogs in the implementation of the program.

“I think it’s a great example of the county not just saying they do globalization – we are living it,” Spencer said.

UCPS plans to continue the immersion program into middle schools, but the curriculum is still in the works, Clarke said.

“We’re going to have something, but we don’t (yet) have the meat of the text,” Clarke said.

In the meantime, Clarke and Spencer both encourage parents to see the immersion programs in action in the classrooms. “Those kids are amazing after even a month of kindergarten as an immersion student,” Clarke added.

Interested parents who would like to visit an immersion class at Shiloh Elementary can contact Spencer at scott.spencer@ucps.k12.nc.us or 704-296-3035.

-- This article, reprinted with permission from the Union County Weekly, was written by Courtney Schultz, a reporter with Union County Weekly.


Written by: Courtney Schultz, a reporter with Union County Weekly.
Posted: Jul 23, 2014 by Deb Coates Bledsoe

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